Jiwei Xia Makes It Look Easy at the 2019 Oregon State Championships

By Tom Lackaff | Sept. 10, 2019, 10:50 p.m. (ET)

Jiwei Xia 2019

Jiwei Xia Makes It Look Easy at the 2019 Oregon State Championships

 

Saturday, September 7th was a characteristically cool, drizzly day in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. If you happened to venture southwest of Portland to the contiguous city of Tigard, you would have seen a lively annual street fair. Right smack dab in the middle of said street, you would have found unsuspecting passers-by spontaneously compelled to play table tennis, thanks to a booth set up by the neighboring Paddle Palace. By a remarkable coincidence, the Paddle Palace just so happened to be hosting the Oregon State Table Tennis Championships at the exact same time. Such serendipity!


OPEN SINGLES RR

Just like last year, 27 players entered the fray. While numerologists ponder the significance of this coincidence (or is it?), the players geared up for a chance to see their name immortalized on the trophy.

How was the day for Alix Geller, the only woman in the Open Singles? “Frustrating,” she admitted. “But it’s all good experience. You never know who you’re going to win or lose to because it has so much to do with their style and how it meshes with your style.”

Indeed, there was an abundance of stylistic variety on display, Alix’s “windshield wiper” Seemiller grip being a fine example. From the aforementioned Sarit Roy’s impregnable chop-blocking with long pips, to Nicholas Daescu’s dazzling away-from-the-table defense, to Alan Panganiban’s short-pips off-the-bounce attack reminiscent of vintage Johnny Huang, there were many notable exceptions to the prevalent inverted rubber topspin offense.

In the qualifying stage, the top two in each group advanced. Also echoing last year, exactly one player seeded outside the top two survived to the knockout rounds. This time the upstart was third-seeded Jong Cha (1327), who stunned Landry Molimbi (1737).

Round of 16

For his efforts, Cha earned a match with Hau Lam (2082) in the first knockout round. Lam was in no mood to be another chapter in Cha’s Cinderella story, slamming the door shut in straight sets.

Also in the round of 16, in which top seeds Jiwei Xia and Ryan Hoarfrost received byes, Oregon evergreen Jay Crystal (1989) pulled a minor upset over Roger Castle (2007). Unfazed by Castle’s deceptively spinny slow backhand loops, Castle was the aggressor from the start, firing lefty forehand bullets at will. After sweeping the match, the three-time state singles champ Crystal remarked, “That’s the way I played when I was in my twenties!”

In other minor upset news, 11-year old Kevin Nguyen (1814) got the best of Alan Panganiban (1851). Nguyen was not even born when Panganiban played his last tournament 12 years ago. Happy to be competing again, Panganiban reflected, “I just want to get a feel for it again.”

Quarterfinals

As all the other matches went by the numbers, we can safely move on to the quarterfinals. There, top seed and defending champion Jiwei Xia (2626) warmed up with a loose, quasi-exhibition style match with Jay Crystal (1989). After Xia somehow whipped a backhand loop kill from beneath the table, Jay could only shake his head and remark, “That is so cool—I just wish it wasn’t against me!” As expected, Xia advanced 3-0.

Second seed Ryan Hoarfrost (2150) faced Sarit Roy (1917). Hoarfrost, Open Singles finalist in 2018, has an arsenal of reverse pendulum serves which serve two main goals: to befuddle his opponents and set up his killer forehand loops. Against Roy, who blocks most shots with the long pips on his backhand, Hoarfrost’s own spin often came back to bite him. After splitting the first two games, both at deuce, Hoarfrost took some spin off his serve so he could tee off on the knuckleball returns, advancing with a (13-11, 12-14, 11-3, 11-5) scoreline.

In the battle between precocious pre-teen Kevin Nguyen (1814) and two-time state champ Hau Lam (2082), there would be fireworks aplenty. While Lam is the model of consistency, Nguyen plays with a fearless, go-for-broke aggression which would seem reckless in less skilled hands. More than once they had the whole club transfixed, oohing and aahing like they were at the waterfront on the 4th of July. One spectacular rally saw Lam smashing a half-dozen of Nguyen’s spinny lobs which just kept coming back, nearly grazing the lofty ceiling as they curved every which way but still somehow found their way back on to Lam’s side of the table. The point ended as did the match, with Lam victorious but with a buzz brewing about the talented youngster.

In a study of contrasting styles, aggressive Michael Groom (2002) faced defensive master Nicholas Daescu (2025). Although philosophically divergent, they are both exponents of the high-toss serve, the ball ascending to roughly double the server’s height with every toss. Once the ball was on the table, however, Groom seized the first opportunity to attack, often whipping inside-out forehands breaking away from Daescu’s lefty forehand. Daescu was finally forced to employ his offense, but it was too little, too late as Groom reeled off three straight.

Semifinals

The winner of each semifinal would have his name etched on the trophy, the position determined by the final.

In the first semifinal, Michael Groom faced Jiwei Xia. “Faced,” in this case, means he hit Xia in the face with a shanked smash on the very first point. As he recovered from the 40mm cannonball wound, Xia joked, “You know what? You win.” Unfortunately for Groom, Xia would serve his revenge piping hot. While Groom’s inside-out forehand put some pressure on Xia’s backhand, the reigning state champion produced unrelenting topspin from both wings, cruising to a straight-sets victory.

The other semifinal saw Ryan Hoarfrost square off against Hau Lam. In the first, Hoarfrost’s topspin attack has Lam blocking, not a winning strategy at this level. In the second, however, Lam finds his footing and ties it up. In a close third game, Hoarfrost reasserts his authority. He then rides the momentum to a decisive win in the fourth, finishing in style with a forehand loop from his knees at match point.

Final

As Yogi Berra said, it’s like déjà vu all over again. Just like back in 2018, it was club pros Jiwei Xia and Ryan Hoarfrost battling for primary position on the venerable state championship trophy.

Game 1 started out tentative, each player making the mistakes they hoped the other would make. After 3-all, Xia took matters into his own hands and started going for his shots, capping a 4-0 run with a step-around forehand loop kill. A whip-crack backhand set up game point for Xia, which he converted on the second try.

The second game again saw matters commence equitably to 3-all before Xia strung together one of his signature runs, a stunning 7-0 sequence marked by a fusillade of forehands. Only by his own hand was the perfection suspended, a missed serve at the first of seven game points serving as a token concession to mortality. Trailing 4-10, Hoarfrost then missed a backhand, handing Xia game two.

A year ago, Hoarfrost also found himself down 0-2 before valiantly rallying to tie it up. Ever the fighter, he was certainly harboring thoughts of such plots at the outset of game three. Xia, for his part, also remembered his colleague’s heroics from last year and wanted no part of it, racing out to a 6-2 lead. After splitting the next three points, they came up with the highlight of the match at 9-5, trading murderous smashes and ridiculous lobs until Hoarfrost ripped a forehand loop winner. Far less dramatically, a service winner from Xia then set up four championship points at 10-6.

Hoarfrost then served and forehand loop killed the third ball to save one, 10-7. On the next point, Xia missed a smash, making it 10-8 as the crowd held its collective breath. Xia then served, the heavy underspin causing Hoarfrost’s flick to nick the net and sail long. Jiwei Xia is once again the Open Singles champion! With the same names in the same position, one can only hope the trophy engraver saved the template from last year.


OPEN DOUBLES RR

In a three-team round robin, the duo with the best record would be crowned state champions.

Putting up a spirited fight, Sarit Roy and Chris Opocensky made their opponents sweat for every point. Both armed with the dreaded long pips on their backhands, they wielded the vicious filaments like a pair of porcupines mugging you in a dark alley.

Ultimately, Roy and Opocensky were overpowered in both of their matches. Afterward, Roy shrugged, knowing they had left it all on the floor against their high-octane opposition. “Well, we tried,” he laughed.

That left two dynamic duos to duke it out: Ryan Hoarfrost and Hau Lam versus Jay Crystal and Kevin Nguyen. Kevin, all of 11, showed composure beyond his years playing with the big boys, all three of whom have their names etched all over the state championship trophy.

The first three games could scarcely have been closer, with Hoarfrost and Lam outscoring Crystal and Nguyen 30 points to 29 for a 2-1 advantage. Realizing that their opponents were not to be trifled with, Hoarfrost and Lam blazed out to an 8-0 advantage in the fourth game before coasting across the finish line with an 11-5 win.

Afterwards, Hau Lam shed some insight into their winning strategy. “We kept the ball on the table,” he joked, before divulging more specific details. “We kept them surprised on the serve so either one of us could open up the attack,” he revealed.


WOMEN’S SINGLES

With only two entrants, the first match was the finals. 11-year-old debutante Eden Choi faced grizzled veteran Cheery Zhang, 13.

While the match was full of highlight reel-worthy rallies, in the end Zhang’s steady topspin overpowered Choi en route to a 3-0 win.

Zhang has paid her dues, making last year’s semifinals. What did she think about playing for the title this year? The 2019 Women’s Singles Champion wasted no excess verbiage in summarizing the experience. “It was fun,” she said with a smile.

Without doubt, she speaks for all of us.


OVER 40 RR

The 40-and-better crowd provided the most dramatic finish of all the events. The final saw Jong Cha (1327), who played his first tournament this year, take on David Edwards (1499), a 15-year tournament veteran. Cha, still riding high from his 410-point upset of Landry Molimbi in the Open Singles, cruised to the finals looking to notch another upset.

Armed with a steady loop, Cha faced Edwards’ unpredictable chop-and-smash style. After being tied at 6-all in the first, Cha closed out the game on a 5-1 run. He claimed game two with the identical 11-7 score.

In game three, Cha led 7-5 before Edwards went on a 5-0 run to claim three game points. On the third try, Edwards served and smashed the third ball to get on the board.

In game four, Edwards jumped out to a 4-0 lead before Cha’s slow loops started to force errors. From there, Cha kept pace but Edwards’ head start proved to be the difference, 11-7 to force game five.

In the decider, Cha seemed to have found his rhythm with Edwards’ chops, leading 5-1 when they switched ends. At this point, Edwards decided that if he was to go down, he was going to go down swinging. And swing he did, for the proverbial fences with his forehand smash at every opportunity. Soon, it was 6-all. Then 7-all. Then it was 8-all, and Cha served down the line to Edwards’ forehand, provoking an automatic attack and providing Edwards a 9-8 lead. Cha then missed his serve, giving Edwards two championship points. After a tentative back-and-forth over the net, Edwards saw his chance to complete the comeback, smashing home the winner with his trusty forehand. With these two evenly matched competitors putting on a terrific display, experience proved to be the difference.


JUNIORS RR

Winners of their respective qualifying groups, Cheery Zhang (1370) and Kevin Nguyen (1814) met in the final. Nguyen was a finalist last year when rated 1251, putting his meteoric ascent into stark relief.

Despite being a 444-point underdog on paper, Zhang was not easily intimidated. To the contrary, she was able to move Nguyen around with strategically placed blocks, waiting for the right ball to put away.

Against Nguyen, however, this is easier said than done. With his cat-like agility, he is able to get in position for almost every ball and keep firing a seemingly inexhaustible barrage of loops from both wings.

In the end, it was Nguyen for the win, (11-4, 11-4, 11-6). With junior stars like Cheery Zhang and Kevin Nguyen, the future of table tennis in the Rose City is rosy indeed.

 

 

Tom Lackaff

Tabletennisinfo.com